‘Just take tea with us, Alex, before setting off to see your mother; Papa will like it if you do.’ Elise tenderly removed her drowsing baby from Bea’s embrace. She’d seen the wisdom in her husband’s argument that he could travel faster alone to London. ‘I can explain all about the dowager’s illness to Papa when the ladies leave.’
Elise gave Hugh a look of heartfelt gratitude, then the preoccupied couple joined Walter in the parlour, leaving Beatrice behind and in two minds as to whether to follow them. But running off and letting Hugh Kendrick see himself out would be rude and cowardly. Beatrice hoped she was neither of those things. Today Hugh had acted as a true friend to her brother-in-law; the least he deserved in recompense was a little hospitality before setting again on the road.
‘I’ll go to the kitchen and get you some refreshment. You should have some tea at least...’
Hugh caught at her shoulder as she turned to go. ‘Your father’s churlishness doesn’t bother me, but I’d like you to explain to me what caused it.’
Beatrice tipped up her chin, met his eyes squarely. ‘I have already told you that he has not forgotten or forgiven you for pursuing me when I was younger.’ The sensation of his long fingers again restraining her was making her skin tingle and burn. She glanced significantly at the tanned digits curved on rose-sprigged cotton. ‘If you don’t mind waiting in there I will fetch your tea.’ Beatrice indicated a door further along the hallway.
‘Am I to be held in solitary confinement?’
Hugh sounded less amused now—haughty, even, Bea realised as his fingers fractionally tightened on her before dropping away. But though her defences were rising she knew he had a point. ‘I admit it is unfair treatment, sir, when you have performed a mission of mercy for your friend. I beg you will tolerate my elderly father’s foibles. It is not just you he is set against; he is protective of his daughters and hostile to any person who might have harmed us.’
‘Is Dr Burnett such a person?’ Hugh asked bluntly.
‘I will explain to Papa how generously you have behaved when our visitors have gone.’ Fearing he might repeat his question about Colin’s role in all this, Beatrice quickly took two backward steps before carrying on towards the kitchen.
‘Who’s the handsome stranger?’ Betty asked in her forthright way, having assessed Beatrice’s tortured expression. ‘I’ve not seen him here before but I reckon he knows you...and rather well in my opinion.’ She wiped her damp hands on her pinafore then plonked them on her ample hips.
Beatrice had closed the kitchen door and then her eyes while leaning against the panels, her head tilted up in an attempt to control her whirling thoughts. She pushed away from her support and with a sigh took a seat at the floury-topped table. ‘He’s a good friend of the viscount’s,’ she finally answered, picking up a warm biscuit from the dozen or so cooling on a rack. Beatrice loved a freshly baked treacle biscuit and usually would have taken a greedy bite and got a ticking off from Betty for not letting it set properly. But she put it back, unable to quell the queasiness in her stomach spoiling her appetite.
‘So...this fellow is also a friend of yours, is he, Miss Beatrice?’ Betty crossed her arms over her chest, awaiting a reply.
‘Once he was...or I thought as much. But I was wrong about him as well.’ Beatrice frowned at her fingers, clasped in front of her on the table. She’d banished Colin from her mind and refused to mention his name. ‘Would you put the kettle on, Betty? Mr Kendrick has done the viscount a good turn by conveying news from London. He deserves some tea before setting off home.’
The housekeeper gave Beatrice an old-fashioned look. ‘I’ll do that for him, and I’ll even bring him along a few of those.’ She tipped her head at the biscuits. ‘No matter what your father thinks of the fellow, I took to him— ’cos he’s a gentleman not too high and mighty to give a hand to the likes of me.’
‘He hasn’t always been a wealthy man, so I expect he is used to fetching and carrying for himself,’ Beatrice murmured, almost to herself.
‘Sometimes them that comes late to luxury are the worst sort, with their penny-pinching and lording it. They don’t want to go back to scrimping and scraping, and doffing caps, you see. He’s not like that. I’d stake my life on it.’ Betty imparted her wisdom on the subject of upstarts.
Bea planted an elbow on the tabletop and sank her sharp little chin into a palm. She couldn’t agree with Betty’s estimation of Mr Kendrick’s modesty. She’d seen a very imperious glint in his eyes earlier that had impressed upon her, almost as much as had his cool tone of voice, that he was no longer the ordinary man she’d once known...and loved.